‘Turmoil and distress’: Reports to revenge porn helpline double during pandemic as millions go online

Exclusive: Experts report rise in sextortion as use of dating apps surges in lockdown

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Friday 11 December 2020 16:43 GMT
Revenge porn was made a criminal offence in 2015
Revenge porn was made a criminal offence in 2015

The UK’s revenge porn helpline dealt with its highest ever number of cases during the recent lockdown, with experts warning that the coronavirus crisis has led to a dramatic surge in incidents.

Data shows revenge porn cases reported to the government funded helpline have doubled since the pandemic hit in March — surging from 162 cases in February to 326 reports in November.

The helpline has experienced record month after record month during the Covid emergency, with cases in November being 42 per cent higher than the helpline estimated they would be at the beginning of the month.

Revenge porn – defined as revealing private sexual images or videos online or offline without the consent of the person with the aim of provoking distress – was made a criminal offence in 2015. Perpetrators of revenge porn face jail sentences of up to two years.

David Wright, who oversees the helpline, told The Independent that records stretch back to April 2015 when the helpline was launched to coincide with the new laws.

Mr Wright, who is co-director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, which runs the helpline, added: “The lockdown has had a huge impact.

“People are at home more and spending more time online. People are more likely to use dating apps. The isolation of the lockdown means people are reaching out for online relationships and friendships which do sometimes turn into crimes of sextortion and extortion. We have seen a rise of sextortion during the pandemic. This has been aggravated by lockdown.

“I take pride in representing the helpline and the work that it does. Four per cent of those that call us are considering suicide. This shows the distress that comes alongside revenge porn. It creates so much upset, turmoil and distress.”

The helpline helps victims of both revenge porn and sextortion - the latter being a cybercrime which involves threatening to use intimate images or videos to blackmail someone.

Kate Worthington, who has been working on the helpline for just over two years, told The Independent reports have shot up during the pandemic because domestic abuse has also soared in the wake of lockdown measures implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus.

She added: “It has gone up for a few reasons. Awareness of the helpline has been raised during the pandemic as we have had good media coverage.

“Also intimate image abuse isn’t a behaviour which occurs in isolation. It comes alongside stalking and domestic abuse. It is part and parcel of relationships becoming abusive. The pandemic has escalated pre-existing behaviours of abuse as people have been locked down with their abusers.

“Revenge porn is a hugely, hugely devastating crime. It is someone sharing images of someone when they are at their most vulnerable. When someone violates that, it is so detrimental to people’s health and wellbeing. Revenge porn isn’t just defined as sharing content, it is also threatening to share”.

Ms Worthington, who helps remove graphic content online, said she wanted to alert victims to the fact the helpline is there to help them. She noted women are often crying when the ring up - explaining that recounting the abuse they have suffered can trigger highly emotional feelings.

“There is less awareness of online crimes,” she added. “But online crimes have the same detrimental effect as physical crimes.”

Research by Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, found one in 14 adults in England and Wales – about 4.4 million people – have been subjected to threats to share intimate images or footage. Such threats were most common among those aged between 18 and 34 – with one in seven young women having suffered threats.

The survey found 72 per cent of women who have received threats to leak images were threatened by a current or former partner, and 83 per cent of those women also experienced other forms of abuse. Refuge said this showed the problem should be seen as a domestic abuse issue.

The Independent has previously reported how three in four domestic abuse victims are exposed to “controlling, humiliating or monitoring” behaviour by their former partners using technology.

Refuge found 4,004 women seeking help last year – around three-quarters of the total – had faced abuse from their ex-partner perpetrated over technology.

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